One of the first “adult” things you’ll likely do when you head out on your own is rent an apartment. The process can be a bit intimidating for a first time renter. Below we take you through the steps of finding an apartment, navigating the legalese of the lease agreement, as well as managing your rights as a tenant. Let’s do this.
Finding an Apartment
Figure out how much you can afford. Take a look at your monthly income. Experts recommend only spending between 25%-35% of your after-tax income on rent and housing. So let’s say your pay after taxes is $1,500 a month. Ideally, you shouldn’t pay more than $525 a month on rent.
You also need to take into account that you may be responsible for some of the utility costs of your rental. So you’ll need to figure in another $100+ to cover those costs.
Keep in mind that some apartments have income requirements that will put you out of the running altogether.
If you can’t find a place within your budget, consider getting a roommate.
Create criteria for your ideal apartment. What are you looking for in an apartment? Do you want a studio or a single bedroom? Maybe you want to rent a small house? Do you need the apartment to come with appliances, including washer and dryer? Do want it to be close to school or your work? Do want it to be within walking distance of retail, like groceries or coffee shops? Are you willing to live in a neighborhood known for its crime levels?
Write down whatever comes to your mind. While you might not be able to get everything on your apartment wish list, it will definitely help in narrowing down the possibilities.
Identify potential apartments. With your list of criteria in hand, hop online and start searching for apartments. When Kate and I looked for an apartment here in Tulsa, I simply began the search by Googling: “Tulsa apartments for rent.” Google actually brings up a map that pinpoints apartments or homes for rent in your city. That map makes narrowing down potentials pretty easy because you can see if the apartments are close to work or school, near grocery stores, or are in safe areas of town.
Once you narrow apartments down by location, check to see if they have the things you’re looking for in a rental, i.e. appliances, number of bedrooms, etc. Most big apartment complexes have a web page where you can look at floor plans, the amenities they offer, and the cost of rent. Smaller units might only have a phone number. Give those apartments a call and ask about their available units and cost.
Don’t just limit your search to Google. Make sure to hop on Craigslist to find homes or apartments that might be for rent by individual owners as opposed to bigger companies.
A couple of other good sources for finding potential apartments are rental magazines that you can pick-up for free at supermarkets and rent.com. If you find your apartment using the latter, they’ll send you a $100 gift card. Bonus!
Set aside a day to visit your potentials. You’ll want to visit your potential rental units in person to see their condition and possibly submit a rental application. Make this process as efficient as possible by visiting as many of your potentials as you can in a single day. Saturdays are the busiest days for landlords showing apartments, so try to go sometime during the week. It’s best to call the landlords and set up an appointment with them, but if you can’t, most buildings will give you a tour anyway. You’ll want to set aside about 45 minutes for each visit, so plan your appointments accordingly.
Visiting Prospective Rentals
Make a good first impression. When you visit a potential apartment, the landlord or apartment manager will be evaluating you just like you’re evaluating them. They want to make sure the people they rent to are reliable, courteous, and easy to get along with. Your first impression starts with the phone call to set up the appointment. Be polite and speak clearly.
When you actually go visit the apartment, dress for the occasion. While you don’t have to wear a shirt and tie, you shouldn’t come rolling in to your appointment wearing sweatpants and a crummy t-shirt. Nice jeans and a polo will work well.
Be on time! If you show up late to your appointment, the manager or landlord could take that as a sign you may be late in paying rent.
When you meet the manager or landlord, offer a firm handshake, a warm smile, and thank them for meeting with you.
As you look at the rental unit, keep your comments positive and your possible complaints close to your vest. No need to spout off a list of upgrades and requests before you’re even offered the place. That will just scare landlords away from you. Wait to bring up your concerns until after you’ve been accepted as a renter.
Check for problems. As you walk through the apartment, check the following things, but again, don’t broadcast your concerns right away:
- Look for signs of mold, mildew, and insect infestation.
- Open and close all the doors and windows, and also check that the locks function properly.
- Flush the toilet and run the water in the sinks and showers. Pay attention to water pressure and temperature.
- Look for obvious damage like broken fixtures, holes in walls, broken tile, etc.
- Check for wear and tear in the carpet.
Ask questions. While you should keep small concerns to yourself about the unit while looking at it, feel free to ask the landlord or apartment manager any questions you might have that will help in your decision. Here are some possible questions you may consider asking:
- What’s the monthly rent?
- Are any utilities included with the rent?
- How much is the security deposit?
- When is rent due? Do you have auto-pay?
- What’s the make-up of the other tenants? Are they mainly younger students? Married couples with families? Older folks?
- Have you had any break-ins in the past year? Are car break-ins a problem?
- What’s the parking situation like? Do you pay for a parking spot?
- Do you take care of small maintenance issues or am I responsible for some of the repairs in the apartment?
- Am I able to re-paint the walls or make other modifications?
Again, be friendly and polite when you ask these questions. No need to be combative.
Ask current tenants about their experience. Online apartment reviews are pretty worthless in my experience. It seems the only people who leave reviews are folks who had a bad experience with the landlord or apartment manager. And when you read the reviews, you often get the sense that this person is a little unhinged and probably had a hand in creating the problem they’re griping about in the first place.
To get a better idea of what it’s like to rent at a particular complex, it’s best to ask current tenants. When you’re visiting, and don’t have a person from their office by your side, ask any tenants you may run into about their experience living there. Is the landlord easy to work with? Are they responsive to repair requests? Do they feel safe living here? Are the neighbors quiet and friendly?
Filling Out the Rental Application
When you find a place you like, you’ll likely have to fill out a rental application. Landlords and apartment managers use the application to screen potential renters. The application will ask about your employment and monthly income as well as your rental history. You’ll also be asked to sign a consent form giving permission to the landlord to run a background and credit check. Be completely truthful when filling out the application! Any fibs on it will likely be discovered during the background check, resulting in your application ending up in the trashcan.
And to be clear: submitting a rental obligation in no way obligates you to anything. If the manager approves it, you’ll then be asked to come in to the apartment office to sign a lease.
Check your credit history before submitting a rental application. Landlords are allowed by law to check the credit histories of potential renters to screen for people who are or aren’t likely to pay rent on time. If they see that you’ve had trouble paying bills on time, that’s a red flag that they shouldn’t rent to you. It’s good to check your credit history before submitting an application so you can correct any mistakes that may adversely affect you in the rental process.
Be ready to pay a rental application fee. Landlords are allowed to charge you an application fee to cover the cost of the credit check. The fee should be in the $20-$30 range; anything more, and you’re probably getting ripped off. If you’re submitting multiple rental applications, the credit check fees can quickly start adding up. To curtail those costs, you might consider getting your credit report yourself and making copies of it to give to landlords. Some may insist on requesting the report themselves, out of worry that you may have doctored the copy to make it look better than it actually is. But you may be able to persuade a few to accept your copy, thus saving you some money. It doesn’t hurt to try.
Have a list of references ready. You’ll be asked to provide a list of personal and professional references. Have those ready and make sure to tell your references they should expect a call from a landlord.
Signing the Lease (or Rental Agreement)
After your rental application has been approved, the landlord will ask you to come to the office and sign a lease. This is where you can bring up any concerns you had about the rental unit, as well as negotiate for better terms or perks. You need to be on your game during this time, because once you sign your name on that dotted line, you’re pretty much stuck with the terms written in the lease.
Have enough money in your checking account to cover the security deposit and first month’s rent. When you sign your lease, the landlord will usually ask that you pay a security deposit as well as the first month’s rent. Make sure you have enough money in available (they may only take cash, money order, or debit card) to cover both amounts. The security deposit will be stored in a savings account during the term of your lease. If you terminate the lease early or leave the apartment in disrepair, the landlord will use the security deposit to cover those costs. If you leave the apartment in the same condition as you got it, you can get your security deposit back. More on that later.
Difference between a lease and a rental agreement. Leases and rental agreements are pretty much the same thing except for one thing: time. Rental agreements typically go from month-to-month, while leases last for a longer period of time, usually a year. Landlords are free to raise the rent at the end of each month when a rental agreement expires; leases lock in the rate of rent for an entire year.
If you know that you’ll only be in the apartment for a short period of time, ask for a rental agreement; if you plan on staying in your place for at least a year, get a lease.
Read the lease or rental agreement before signing! Don’t sign anything until you’ve read through the lease line-by-line. You want to know exactly what you’re getting into when you agree to rent from a landlord. Make note of anything you find disagreeable, and ask questions about what you don’t understand. As you read through the rent, look for the provisions that answer the following questions:
How much is rent? Duh.
How much is the security deposit and how can you get it back? Understand what sort of condition you’ll need to leave the apartment in if you want to get your security deposit back.
What’s the term of the tenancy? Month-to-month? Nine months? One year?
What happens at the end of the lease? When the term of the lease is up, what do you have to do to renew it? How much will the landlord increase your rent by? If the lease is up, but you still need a place to stay for a month or two, can you ask that the lease convert to a month-to-month rental agreement?
What happens if you terminate your lease early? This an important provision to check. Sure, you may plan to stay in your apartment for a year, but plans can change and you’ll have to terminate your lease early. Most apartments will ask for 30 to 60 days notice if you plan on terminating the lease early. Pay attention to see if there are any termination fees. Under the law in most states, you are legally responsible to pay the landlord only for the actual loss in rent that your early termination caused. So if you move out early, and it took the landlord a month to find another renter, you’d be responsible for one month’s rent.
Many corporately managed complexes will try sneak in clauses saying you have to pay two or three months rent for ending a lease early. Because they can often fill the vacancy quickly, they end up scoring a huge windfall — they have two months rent from you, plus rent from the new guy. That’s illegal in most states. If you see termination fees like that in the lease, try to get them deleted or modified before you sign. Forfeiting your security deposit and paying a month’s rent is usually a reasonable termination fee.
If you have signed with a roommate, are you jointly and severally liable? Usually when you sign a lease with a roommate, the lease will state that each co-signer is jointly and severally liable. This means if your roommate doesn’t pay his share of the rent or moves out before the end of the lease, you are still on the hook for the full amount of the rent.
Where, how, and when is rent paid and what happens if you’re late on rent? You’d be surprised, but some landlords are really particular about how rent is paid. They want it in a certain form (check, credit card, etc.) and deposited in a certain place. Make sure you know where and how this is to take place. Also make sure the lease is clear on when rent is due and what happens if you pay late. Most landlords will charge a fee on late payments.
Which utilities are you responsible for? Some landlords cover the costs of all utilities, while others cover none. Many will have arrangements where they’ll pay the water bill, but then tack on your portion of the bill to your monthly rent.
Is subletting allowed? Let’s say you take a three-month trip during the summer. You have a friend who needs a place to stay during that same three-month period. Instead of leaving your apartment vacant for three months, you offer to let your friend stay in your place as long as he pays you the amount of monthly rent so that you can pay the landlord. You just sublet. Most landlords prohibit subletting, but some allow it. If you think you’ll need to be able to sublet to someone else, make sure the lease allows you to.
Are you allowed to make alterations to the dwelling? You’re not the owner of the property, so you can’t replace counters or paint the walls without the landlord’s permission. Most places I’ve rented from allow you to paint the walls, as long as you paint them back to the original color before you move out.
Are you responsible for minor repairs or is your landlord? While landlords are required by law to make repairs that ensure the dwelling is habitable, they’re not required to take care of minor repairs, and may leave that to you to take care of. Most large apartment complexes will fix just about anything in your unit. In leases with individual landlords you’ll often see clauses stating that the renter is responsible for minor repairs.
Are pets allowed, and if so, do you have to pay an extra fee for having one? Some apartments allow pets (often with size restrictions); some don’t. The ones that do, often charge an extra monthly fee.
Is smoking allowed? Landlords are allowed to prohibit smoking in their units. If you’re a smoker, you’ll want to know that before you sign the lease.
Get any oral promises in writing. If the landlord made any oral promises to you while you were looking at the apartment, get those promises written in the lease.
Feel free to negotiate and delete any of these terms. If you see any terms you don’t like, ask to have them modified. Also, feel free to negotiate the rent amount or security deposit. Before you and the landlord sign the lease, anything is fair game to change in the contract.
Inspect the Apartment Before Taking Possession
Before you take possession of the apartment, the landlord should give you a Landlord-Tenant Checklist that lists all the rooms, fixtures, and appliances in the apartment. Inspect the apartment and make note of the condition of the various items on the list. If you notice any damage, make sure to photograph it, and point it out to the landlord or manager. Be as thorough as possible during this inspection. This will protect you from forfeiting your security deposit for damage that already existed before you took possession.
Get Renter’s Insurance
Renter’s insurance covers any loss to your personal property due to robbery or accidents. It also covers any damage you might cause to other tenant’s property. For example, let’s say your washing machine springs a leak and water seeps through the floor and ruins your neighbor’s antique dresser. Renter’s insurance would cover that.
When you sign your lease, your landlord may strongly suggest and even hint that you’re legally required to get renter’s insurance. Their concern isn’t for your benefit. The landlord wants your insurance policy to pay for any damage or injury that your negligence causes instead of the aggrieved party suing the landlord. While you’re not required to have renter’s insurance in most states (except Virginia), it’s a good idea to get it anyway. As Woodrow Call from Lonesome Dove would say: “better to have it and not need it, then to need it and not have it.” Renter’s insurance will set you back about $15-25 a month, less if you tack it onto another policy (like auto) you have with an insurance company.
Your Rights and Responsibilities as a Renter
Court cases and state statutes have established rights and responsibilities that you have as a renter. If your landlord violates any of these rights, you’re entitled to recourse.
You have the right to a habitable premise. While you’re not entitled to five-star amenities, you do have the right to rent a place that’s habitable. What constitutes a habitable premise? Case law and statutes generally define it as having the following attributes:
- safe structural elements including floors, walls, roofs, and secure doors and windows
- all electrical, plumbing, heating, and air conditioning systems function
- working hot and cold water
- exterminating infestations of rodents and other insects
- access to trash receptacles
If your apartment ever suffers any defects that make your place inhabitable (like sewage backing up in your bathtub), your landlord has a duty to fix it. While some apartments let you make online requests for repairs, as well as provide a phone number for “emergencies,” always make sure you document your request in some way. The landlord will then have a certain amount of time to make those repairs. If they don’t, you have several re-courses, such as withholding rent until the repairs are made or paying someone to fix the problem and then deducting the cost of repair from your rent. It’s when you decide to go those routes, that having your communications with your landlord well documented becomes so important.
You have the right to privacy. While the landlord owns the property, they can’t barge in anytime they want. All states have laws stating renters have a right to privacy while renting. Pretty much the only time the landlord can come into your rental without permission or notice is when they’re responding to an emergency that threatens injury or property damage.
Any other time the landlord wants to enter your apartment, they need to have your permission and in some cases give you 24-hours notice before entering. Some landlords or apartment managers will try to bully you into giving permission. Don’t give in. If your landlord bugs more than is reasonably necessary and fails to comply with requests to leave you alone, you can sue your landlord for invasion of privacy or breach of “implied covenant of quiet enjoyment.”
You have the right to a safe premise. The landlord can’t prevent all crimes or accidents that occur on their premises, but if the crime or injury occurred because of the landlord’s negligence, you can sue them for any damages or costs you may have incurred.
In addition to the provisions in the lease agreement, many states have statutes on the books listing the responsibilities of the renter.
Keep the premise clean, safe, and in good repair. This is the most common responsibility you’ll see listed in statutes. Basically, you’re required by law to take care of the apartment while you’re a tenant there. Not too hard.
Reimburse the landlord for any damages you may cause. If you don’t keep the apartment clean, safe, and in good repair, you have the responsibility of reimbursing the landlord to make the apartment clean, safe, and in good repair again.
Getting Your Safety Deposit Back When You Move Out
So your lease is up and you’re ready to move on to greener pastures. How do you get that $500 security deposit back? In my experience, most landlords will try to do anything to ensure that they don’t pay back your deposit.
First, clean your apartment as well as you can, including carpet cleaning, if possible (landlords will often clip you on this). Second, get your Tenant-Landlord Checklist that you filled out when you first moved in and run an inspection again with your landlord. You can’t be charged for ordinary wear and tear that comes with living in an apartment, but you can be for damage and excessive filth. Check out this chart of what sort of wear and tear a landlord should pay for and what sort of damage they can deduct from your security deposit.
If they try to charge you to replace something when a repair would be sufficient, object. Also, if you paid a cleaning a fee before moving in, your landlord can’t deduct your security deposit for any cleaning.
If the landlord does have to deduct from your security deposit to replace and clean your apartment, you’re entitled to an itemized statement that explains the purpose of each deduction. If you think any of the amounts are excessive and unwarranted, push back and make your case. If your landlord won’t change his mind, unfortunately your only recourse is to take him to small claims court. Make sure you have everything well documented, though, should you choose to do this.
The landlord has 14 to 30 days after you move out to return your security deposit.
Any other tips and advice for a first time renter? Share them with us in the comments!